BlueLionAdmin/ August 17, 2020/ Blog

There are many benefits for both small business owners and their employees when it comes to remote work. Organizations that have managed a remote workforce cite perks like increased employee engagement, morale, and productivity.

Despite its many positives, working from home also has its own set of liabilities. As companies adapt to the world of remote working due to COVID-19, many are wondering if they need workers’ compensation for remote employees—and the answer is absolutely!

Even if you have coverage, you may be wondering exactly how workers’ comp laws apply to telecommuters. This blog post will tell you:

  • How it works
  • Examples of what is and is NOT covered
  • Tips for keeping your remote team safe & reducing liability
  • How to handle a workers’ comp claim from a remote employee

How Does It Work?

Generally, an employee injury or illness is covered under workers’ compensation if it arises out of and in the course of employment. Where the injury occurs does not matter.

Simply put, this means the claim qualifies as long as the worker is injured while completing a work task during work hours. 

Also irrelevant? Whether the employee’s negligence or someone else’s played a role in the accident.

The remote employee usually has the burden of proof, meaning they must prove that the injury is work-related and they were acting in the interest of the employer when it occurred. This is required in order to be awarded workers’ comp benefits.

Workplace injuries can occur suddenly (e.g.: a minor burn) or develop over time (e.g.: repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome). Minor deviations from work activities (e.g.: going to the bathroom or grabbing a quick lunch) may still qualify for benefits. 

Major deviations, on the other hand, are not covered. This refers to an injury that occurs when an employee deviates from their job duties for a personal benefit, therefore not furthering the business of the employer.

Examples of Remote Employee Workers’ Comp Claims

The line may still seem a bit fuzzy regarding what kind of claims are and are not covered for remote employees. To illustrate, we’re sharing a few examples of real cases.

In the 2006 case of Verizon Pennsylvania vs. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Alston), an employee was working from home when she fell down the stairs to her home office and injured her neck. She had left her basement office to go upstairs and get a drink. She fell when rushing back downstairs to answer a ringing phone. The employer argued that the injury occurred out of course and scope because she had gone upstairs to get a drink. The employee argued that she was working to further her employer’s business interests at the time of the injury. The court determined that the home office was an approved “secondary work premise” and ruled in favor of the injured worker, awarding her benefits.

The 2011 case of Sandberg v. JCPenney shows that laws tend to view home offices as equal to office buildings and storefronts. The court, in this case, ruled in favor of an employee who tripped on her dog while retrieving fabric samples from her garage. She received workers’ compensation because she was in the process of working for her employer when the injury occurred.

In another pup-related case, Sedgwick CMS v. Valcourt-Williams, a Florida workers’ compensation claims adjuster tripped over her dog during working hours while reaching for a coffee cup in her kitchen. The Judge of Compensation Claims determined the injury was compensable because the work-from-home agreement meant the employer brought her office environment into her home and vice versa. Sedgwick appealed the compensation claim. The Court of Appeals said the real question was whether the employment, regardless of location, puts the employee at risk of injury. The court said the relevant risk was that the employee might trip over her dog while reaching for a coffee cup in her kitchen, a risk that exists whether or not the employee is working from home (as long as she has a dog). They ruled that because the risk did not arise out of the employment, her injury was not in the course and scope of her employment.

As illustrated in the first example, having permission from an employer to work at home can make or break a workers’ comp case. In Martinez v. State Office of Risk Management, a caseworker for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services was injured while working at home on a Saturday. She was sitting at her kitchen table when she decided to get a pen from the other side of her kitchen. Martinez allegedly tripped and fell, breaking her shoulder and hitting her head. Her claim was denied because she violated agency policy by working from home without prior approval. It was ruled that her injury occurred outside of the course and scope of her employment.

Tips for Keeping Telecommuters Safe & Reducing Liability

The courts don’t consider the employer’s lack of control over the conditions of an employee’s home-based work premises enough reason to deny workers’ compensation benefits. The hazards an employee encounters when working at home are often seen as the hazards of their employment.

This means employers are responsible for providing a safe work environment for remote workers, just as they must do for on-site workers.

Keep your team safe and limit workers’ comp liability for remote employees by:

  • Defining fixed work hours, meal and rest periods, and job duties. This can also help determine whether an injury is work-related.
  • Establishing guidelines for a designated home office or remote workspace. Train telecommuters on workstation setup and safety measures like ergonomics in order to reduce the risk of injury. Make sure everyone has an ergonomic desk chair, keyboard, and mouse. You might also consider providing adjustable computer monitors, laptop mounts, or standing desk converters to prevent poor posture and uncomfortable working positions. This equipment can help prevent back and neck pain and other injuries like carpal tunnel. Finally, confirm that factors like lighting and ventilation in the employee’s home office are sufficient to keep them healthy and comfortable.
  • Implementing a remote work policy. This should specify expectations such as time management practices, time reporting policies, designated work areas, and work and office equipment. Review this policy with all telecommuters and have them sign an acknowledgment that they received and reviewed the policy.
  • Reviewing your insurance. Consult your commercial insurance company about telecommuting employees to make sure you have sufficient coverage in this area.
  • Ensuring your remote employees are properly insured. Require employees to check their homeowner’s insurance coverage and make sure it’s updated. Their policy should cover their homes and property during working hours. Request a copy of the documentation regarding this and keep it on file.

How to Handle a Claim from a Remote Employee

Unfortunate situations may arise even if you take all the precautions and maintain regular communication with your telecommuting employees. Put a plan in place to manage the practical and legal challenges when employing a remote workforce.

When a remote team member submits a workers’ compensation claim, adhere to remote work standards. Ask specific questions related to remote work policies, such as:

  • Was the employer benefiting from the employee’s actions when the injury occurred?
  • Did the employer require the employee to engage in the injury-causing activity?
  • Did the employer approve the off-site activity in advance?

Whether or not the claim occurs at the fault of the employee, along with the location of the injury, does not matter. It comes down to whether the employee was injured in an effort to perform work duties, during set work hours, with approval to work from home.

Managing workers comp for telecommuters can be tricky, but you can rest easy when your business is protected by high-quality property and casualty insurance. BlueLion can recommend several experienced and trustworthy brokers to help you find the right fit for your company, like Tyler Halstead, Account Executive with The Rowley Agency. 

Tyler will be happy to discuss your business’s needs and give you a quote that fits your budget. He and his team will educate you on reducing risks for remote employees and will make sure both you and your team are protected when working from home.

If you need assistance navigating the rocky waters of workers’ compensation and remote employees, contact BlueLion at [email protected] or 603-818-4131 today! Find out how our HR experts and Rowley’s insurance brokers will help you clarify your remote work policies, manage tricky workers’ comp claims, and keeping your whole team safe no matter where they are.

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